Redundant Anniversaries?

yellowexclamationThis past Sunday morning, a listener of Michigan Radio emailed me to correct my speech. My weekly segment of “That’s What They Say” had just aired, and the listener (we’ll call him M) was not impressed with something I said. He wrote:

I just heard your piece … on Michigan Radio. In that discussion you referred to an author who commemorated the “hundred-year anniversary of … ” (your words). Didn’t you mean the hundredth anniversary? I didn’t ever expect to hear that misuse (redundancy, actually) spoken by an English professor at the University of Michigan.

M asked if I might look into the issue, and it seemed like a good idea. I had never given the numbering of anniversaries a second thought before Sunday, but clearly others had some strong opinions on it. I would guess that I use the “xth anniversary” construction more often than “x-year anniversary,” but “x-year anniversary” does not sound especially awkward or unidiomatic to me.

As M points out, there is a redundancy in saying “hundred-year anniversary.” The primary definition of anniversary is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.), “The annually recurring date of a past event, as of personal or historical importance.” If the date is annual, and this is the hundredth one, then clearly it is celebrating one hundred years.

I wrote “primary definition” in the previous paragraph because AHD provides this second definition: “A date that follows a certain event by a specified amount of time: his six-month anniversary of quitting smoking.” The editors do not identify this as a usage problem, but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage provides an entry for it, noting that James Kilpatrick animadverted on this use of anniversary in 1984 (I just had to include their choice of animadvert, as you don’t see this synonym for criticize very often). Kilpatrick disapproved of a phrase like “six-month anniversary.” The Merriam-Webster editors note that the usage seems to be uncommon in print (although perhaps not uncommon in speech); that said, they come to this even-handed conclusion:

The extension to a period of time other than a year does not seem especially irrational, however, in the absence of an alternative word for the idea.

This semantic extension of anniversary might be relevant. Once you have six-month anniversaries, might it encourage some of us to create grammatically parallel constructions such as six-year anniversaries? It will be interesting to see.

All that said, I would agree with M that the word anniversary, with no modifier (that is, the “unmarked” meaning), refers to an annual event. So I understand that my use of “hundred-year anniversary” is arguably redundant. Yet, redundancy in and of itself has never seemed to me an especially persuasive critique of usage given how much redundancy is embedded in human language (e.g., technically the –s in four books is redundant as the word four already marks the phrase as plural).

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage makes a valuable distinction between useful redundancy and wordy redundancy. The examples of useful redundancy include constructions such as: refer back, pick out, start over again, three different meanings. These constructions, by repeating a key bit of information (and it’s really only a bit), can help ensure that the reader or listener does not miss the message. Might the redundancy slow you down for a microsecond? Sure. But these minor redundancies may be more beneficial to the communication of information than harmful (or, as the dictionary editors note, at least many of them are probably harmless).

Where does “hundred-year anniversary” fall on the continuum from useful to wordy redundancy? I would put it somewhere in the neutral range, although I know there may be disagreement. I’m not especially concerned about the redundancy of it, but I’m not thrilled with the aesthetics. It seems a little wordy, but I think that might be more about the “hundred” than the redundant use of “year.” That is, “one-year anniversary” seems better aesthetically than “(one) hundred-year anniversary.”

If we look at common usage, my phrasing on the radio appears to be relatively uncommon, although certainly not unheard of. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are 400 examples of “x year/x-year anniversary” (e.g., “On the one-year anniversary of the war in Iraq”—and it turns out that “one-year anniversary” is by far the most common variant). There are over 5,000 examples of “xth anniversary” (e.g., “On the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision”).

Is this uncommonness misuse? I would not categorize it that way. Would I choose to use “hundred-year anniversary” in formal writing? At this point, probably not, on stylistic grounds. But I also do not see this bit of redundancy in speech as anything that would impede the flow of information. All odds are that this English professor will say it again in her day-to-day speech without even noticing she’s done it.

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